This Day in Jewish History, 1820 |

A Rabbi Who Urged the Orthodox to Join the World Is Born

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The Israelite Synagogal Congregation of Adass Yisroel in Berlin.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

May 20, 1820, is the birthdate of Azriel Hildesheimer, the Berlin rabbi who played a central role in the formulation of modern Orthodoxy, reconciling traditional Torah Judaism with the idea of integration into modern, rational society.

It was Hildesheimer who founded, in Berlin, what quickly became the principal training institute in Europe for Orthodox rabbis, and insisted that its students master secular subjects as well as Jewish ones. In doing so, he offered an effective response to Reform Judaism, the dominant Jewish stream in late 19th-century Germany.

Azriel, or Israel, Hildesheimer, was born in Halberstadt, in Saxony, Prussia. His father, Loeb Glee Hildesheimer, was a rabbi from a family of scholars from the town of Hildesheim, near Hanover; his mother was the former Golde Goslar.

Azriel attended a Jewish primary school in Halberstadt, the first in the country to offer secular subjects together with religious ones, before enrolling in the yeshiva run by Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger, in Altona. At the same time, he also studied with Isaac Bernays, the chief rabbi of nearby Hamburg (whose granddaughter Martha would marry Sigmund Freud). Azriel received his high-school diploma from Halberstadt’s Koningliches gymnasium.

Hildesheimer began his university studies at the University of Berlin, where he pursued Semitic languages and math, before completing a doctorate in biblical interpretation in 1844 at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

In 1846, Hildesheimer married Henriette Hirsch, the daughter of a wealthy Halberstadt industrialist, which allowed him financial independence. He worked on a voluntary basis as secretary of his hometown’s Jewish community before accepting the position of rabbi of Kismarton, Hungary (today, Eisentadt, Austria).

Torn between Reform and Orthodoxy

In Kismarton, Hildesheimer founded both a Jewish primary school that taught secular subjects and integrated modern teaching methods, and a yeshiva whose prerequisites for study included having a secular education.

When it began operating, the yeshiva had six students, but by 1868, enrollment was up to 128. Nonetheless, Hildesheimer encountered significant resistance in the town, whose Jewish population was polarized between ultra-Orthodox and Reform points of view. Hence, when he received an offer in 1869 to move to Berlin – whose traditional community had received government permission to open its own synagogue – he accepted.

In addition to leading the Israelite Synagogal Congregation of Adass Yisroel, Hildesheimer again opened a primary school and, in 1873, a yeshiva, the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary.

In a speech at the seminary, Hildesheimer summed up the essentials of his integrative approach: “Unconditional agreement with the culture of the present day; harmony between Judaism and science; but also unconditional steadfastness in the faith and traditions of Judaism.”

Hildesheimer was a true leader, many of whose positions were by no means to be taken for granted at the time. While he was an outspoken ideological opponent of Reform Judaism, he worked with the non-Orthodox community on issues of mutual interest, including kosher slaughter, the threat of anti-Semitism, and the welfare of Jews living in the Land of Israel. He built inexpensive housing for needy Jews in Jerusalem, as well as establishing an orphanage there, and was also an early supporter of the Hovevei Zion settlement movement in Palestine. Elsewhere, he worked for the relief of Russian pogrom victims.

Scholars continue to compare Hildesheimer and his contemporary Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), father of the concept of “Torah with derekh eretz” – Jewish life combined with worldly engagement – and to discuss which of the two is the true progenitor of modern Orthodoxy.

What can be said is that Hirsch was the more conservative of the two: He was more of a segregationist, who had no interest in cooperation with his ideological opponents; more of an instrumentalist with regard to secular studies; and by no means sympathetic to the emerging nationalist strain of Zionism.

The “On the Main Line” blog some years ago, in a column on Hildesheimer, quoted one of his daughters, Esther Calvary, who recalled how on holidays, between the afternoon and evening prayers, her father would gather the children about him and sing German lieder: “And each time for us, his children, the high point was when he sang his favorite, Heine’s ‘Die Zwei Grenadiere.’”

Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer died in Berlin on July 12, 1899, at the age of 79.

Click the alert icon to follow topics: